Long ago, before AstroTurf was in wide use, before Quantitative Easing was a thing, when we were still talking about the scourge of global cooling, there was only one pathway for the average Jane or Joe to follow should they decide to get involved in general aviation. That path led directly through the office of an FAA Designated Medical Examiner.
Today, there are three entirely separate paths for us to choose from.
I call that progress.
For the record, I continue to fly under a good ol’, tried and true FAA medical certificate. I like my medical examiner. He’s a good guy. We chat. We enjoy each other’s company. We even bump into each other and socialize a bit in between our scheduled office visits. I trust him with monitoring my health and well-being as it pertains to my plans to fly. And that matters, frankly.
My first medical examiner was a mystery partner in a somewhat less congenial pairing. He was a large man. A really large man, based out of a small office in Manhattan. I recall him as a gruff and humorless individual. I was also quite surprised to find that he included a prostate exam in my first ever FAA medical exam. A very unusual choice when examining a young man in his 20s.
My mother told me there would be impediments to progress along my path. She was right, too. I just hadn’t expected one to be quite so personal, so early in the game.
If I were starting my aeronautical adventures today, I think it’s entirely possible I’d avail myself of the Sport Pilot option. You see, my original plan wasn’t to fly professionally, or to involve myself as a writer, or an instructor, or an A&P mechanic, or any of the things I ultimately came to do in aviation. I was just looking for a way to get out of the big bad city faster, without standing in long lines or having to be jostled around for hours on each trip to the countryside.
Sport Pilot and the associated hardware known as Light Sport Aircraft have gotten a bad rap since the FAA first launched them back in 2004. Initially dubbed a “dumbed down” certificate for pilots, misinformation and open derision undoubtedly discouraged many who would have gladly benefitted from the reduced training costs, lower operational cost, and undeniably high fun factor of the Sport market.
In truth, the completion standards included in the Practical Test Standards, now known as the Airman Certification Standards, are identical, task for task, when compared to the Private Pilot certificate. There is no dumbing down and there never was. There are simply a series of restrictions placed on Sport Pilots that result in fewer training hours required.
As for me, the Sport Pilot certificate would have satisfied my youthful goals completely. Maybe not for long, but then, that’s one of the great benefits of the Sport Pilot certificate. It’s relatively easy to upgrade it to a Private Pilot certificate, which would enable the pilot to add an Instrument Rating and more.
An additional advantage is that Sport Pilots self-certify their medical condition. There is no medical examination. There is no form to submit or carry on your person. If you believe yourself to be healthy, go fly. That’s pretty much it.
Had I begun with Sport Pilot (which in all fairness wasn’t available until a couple decades after I climbed into my first cockpit) I might have been tempted to go with the BasicMed option when the urge came to fly bigger, faster, more capable aircraft. Of course BasciMed didn’t come into being until just recently. But with nearly 10% of the overall pilot population taking that track, there’s no denying that BasicMed is a raging success.
In effect, the new BasicMed rule allows pilots to self-certify as Sport Pilot does, but with the oversight and involvement of a state licensed doctor. The hopeful applicant simply downloads a form, meets with their doctor, takes an online course (which includes a quiz), and files the documents to a proper storage place in their own home.
Nothing goes to the FAA. Not from the doctor, not from the pilot. And the BasicMed certification process allows pilots to fly much higher performance aircraft than Sport Pilot does.
Let’s face it, as magnificent as the Piper Cub might be — and it is magnificent in so many ways — it’s not designed for you to load the family into it and head over the horizon to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.
But a Cherokee Six would do the job just fine. BasicMed allows a pilot to fly the Cherokee Six at 12,000′, cruising with as much power as he or she can muster, on an IFR flight plan. Now that’s progress!
The long and the short of it is, we have more and better options for medical certification than ever before. The FAA has shifted with the times. While recognizing that pilot health is important, FAA officials also acknowledge that there has not been a problem with pilots falling from the sky, incapacitated by ailments or conditions they were unaware of.
Just recently the feds announced that insulin dependent diabetics could qualify to fly as commercial pilots. That’s big news.
The barriers to getting into aviation are falling — or at least the fence that has kept folks out has been lowered, several gates have been left open, and the guard shack is only manned on a part-time basis.
No longer do we have to assume only perfect examples of humanity can qualify to be a pilot. Nope, that’s not the case at all. Even an aging, bald dude like myself, who wears corrective lenses, and suffers knee and back pain on a regular basis, can qualify. Imagine that!
Pick a path, y’all. Find a way. There is hope for more of us than ever before. Let’s make the most of the opportunities we’ve got.